Thursday, 18 July 2013

Goodbye ancient ruins and volcanoes (for now)

Well the last 3 weeks has been a bit of a humid and sun drenched whirlwind as we whisked ourselves through 2 countries in our effort to free ourselves from the not so unfortunate grip of central America.
Leaving Guatemala began at 4am in the morning standing on a wee stenched street in the dark waiting for our collectivo to pick us up. Obviously we could've had an extra 30 mins in bed because it didn't turn up on time but I am not complaining because for once we got the back and the luxury of 3 seats between 2 of us - it may not sound like a lot but I can assure you that this was heavenly!

Considering crossing borders in central America does actually involve administrative exercises such as paying to leave one country and passing through immigration and getting stamped into the next I can't believe how easy and smooth the process is. After a short breakfast stop about an hour short of the border we arrived for processing and were stamped out and stamped in and back on our way within 30 minutes - an above average time for crossing a border in these parts.

Just to confirm, we were now passing into Honduras and even better was that our first Honduran destination was a mere 10kms from the border.
Door to door we had arrived into our new country and reached our first stop within 7 hours, meaning that we could begin to relax by 11am - sweet.

Town number 1 was Copan Ruinas, a small cobbled street town perfectly located for visiting Honduras' premier tourist attraction - The Copan Ruins.
I can't put my finger on the exact reasons why but we absolutely loved this little place that stretched out for just 4 blocks in all directions from the central square before you hit the first tracts of farmland and the encroaching jungle. Maybe it is to do with the fact that every male in this country is a wannabe cowboy with their Stetson, jeans and boots!

Copan town centre
Copan Ruinas

I left AJ in a café to watch the bags as I went in search of a place to stay and within 3 attempts we had found a suitable place with an all important 2nd level swimming pool - which we did not use!
Our first couple of days in Honduras were met with torrential downpours (the wet season now with us) so day 1 was spent in our comfy room watching movies as we listened to the thunder outside.

The next day began as each one does - blazing sunshine and blue skies before the clouds gather later in the afternoon. Today we would be visiting our 8th and final central American ruins and I think we saved the equal best for last.
The ruins are located 700 metres out of town so we took a pleasant stroll via a number of ancient tablets strewn about the place to the entrance.
We had already noted that the accommodation was much more expensive than in Guatemala but it was the entrance fee into the ruins that confirmed that our visit to Honduras would be a short one. In the real world, the one where I have a job and don't take a very long time off to do nothing of note, $30 to walk around an ancient city would be a bargain, but I don't live in the real world and 2 x $30 is the exact amount of our daily budget, so combined with a $15 hotel room (again, stupidly cheap in the 'real' world) we had already blown our daily budget without a morsel of food passing our lips.
Still, who cares? The ruins were worth it and I know you could argue that once you've seen one you have seen them all, but when you have visited 8 in a period of 3 months you really do take notice when you visit a goody.

As soon as we entered Copan we were won over because the ruins were home to a colony of Macaws that swooped low over our heads and perched on feeding tables close enough for us to touch if we had wanted to lose a finger.
Due to the time of year the grounds of the ruins were lush and green and this only added to the appearance of these fantastic ruins draped in jungle fauna with ancient trees bursting through the steps of the temples, their huge roots taking hold wherever they can gain purchase.

The central complex stretched over an area of 5 square kilometres and what makes Copan different from the rest was that once you climb up to the highest point of one of the temples you are then faced with another swath of city built atop of the temples, which were the areas devoted to the religious leaders and royalty.
The crowning glory of Copan is the main staircase of the religious temple that starts with an intricately carved alter at its base before stretching up high above you with a number of carved statues at every 10 steps which forms the central stairway.
For an additional $30 each we could've explored the catacombs but I really didn't fancy venturing into the airless tunnels in the near midday heat.

If the ruins and the macaws were not enough the insect life that were going about their daily business also kept us more than entertained. We marvelled at thousands upon thousands of leaf cutter ants marching to and from the nest, some literally falling over because the leaf they had chosen to carry was too big, we also tried to get a close as we could to the huge array of multi-coloured butterflies and then there were the spikey and furry caterpillars that would just drop out of the trees above - we just weren't sure about how close we could get to these or whether to risk picking them up!

Resident Macaws
The Copan Ruins

The Copan Ruins

Having decided that we would do Honduras as quickly as possible we decided that our next and final destination would be Utila, an island that forms part of the Bay Islands located off the north coast of the country in the Caribbean Sea. We were still hopeful of swimming with Whale Sharks and the sea around the Bay Islands is their primary habitat.

The journey to the port of La Ceiba was 6 hours and we would be passing through the town of San Pedro Sula, the world's most dangerous city with a reported 159 murders for every 100,000 people, so we decided for the sake of comfort and our security that we would travel via one of Honduras' luxury bus companies - Hedman Alas.
Again, the ticket was a budget buster but it was worth it - the fully reclining seats, free drinks and snacks and on-board movies more than matched that on an airline and it was a shame to get off it once we arrived.
My only complaint would be that if a girl is allowed to wear a vest on board then so should I! Instead I was told to dress more appropriately. Seriously, you are a bus!

The journey also marked the loss of a dearly beloved friend - our Lonely Planet Guide to Central America.
Somehow between us we managed to leave it on board and by the time we realised it was too late. With internet access being so easy nowadays this shouldn't be an issue but it is only when you don't have it that you really miss a quick reference check in the book or a recommendation of a decent hostel and town map.
Goodbye my friend, you served us well and I hope you're new parents are looking after you.

Arriving late we knew that we would need to spend the night in La Ceiba before taking the boat the following morning and fortunately I had remembered the name of a hostel before we lost the book and I am glad that we did.
We were staying in the west side of town and I later read that you should stay here if you like crack or crack addicted whores!! We did leave our gated compound for a total of 15 minutes to try and find a bank but soon decided that there was always tomorrow after an edgy walk along the dark streets.
With no money in our sky rockets we gorged ourselves on a dinner of 2 biscuits each and some jam on toast which we had left in our bags from the days journey - no way were we going back out there!

The same taxi driver came back for us at 7am the next morning because he told us that we needed to be at the port early to guarantee a ticket for the 9:30 ferry.
He was a bull-shitter - we would've have been fine to arrive at 9:10am but seeing him arrive a further 2 times after dropping us off confirmed that he was a just a sensible businessman and had lined up his morning's pay, and why not?
The ferry over the island only took an hour but it was an hour of being on the pirate ship at the fair. It is never a good sign when the sick bags are given out before you depart but I was surprised at how many people took one and at how many people slowly turned from pink / brown to pale to green as we swayed to and fro on the open ocean. Fortunately we are both ok when it comes to motion sickness so we sat back and enjoyed the pain of others.

With no guide to give us a few pointers we decided to do 'the usual' upon arrival and avoid the touts and go for a coffee and some food before actually finding a place to stay.
With the bags and AJ safely tucked away on a shaded café balcony I did my duty and found the perfect place at Rubi's Inn, a clean and tidy establishment with its own pier for jumping off into the sea.
I liked this place from the start because Rubi, busy with something else called her husband to assist me by shouting out:
"Earl, where's your ass at?" in a Caribbean accent.

Never with a timeframe in mind we ended up hanging out here for 4 nights and although I did nothing of note, I really enjoyed that fact.
Utila and the Bay Islands are all about diving - if you don't dive you are a nobody; and I don't dive!

For such a small place I was surprised by how many backpackers were here to undertake the various diving courses, but given that it is the cheapest place in the world to qualify I shouldn't be.
Amongst the masses of restaurants, cafes and bars the streets of the town 'centre' are lined with dive shops and dive schools all competing for your business and it was so cheap (accommodation included within the price) that I was tempted to take my open water - so that I could be somebody. But in the end I couldn't be arsed, I prefer the mountains.
Whilst on Utila we hired a moped to explore the island and I can't say that it was really worth it - we just seemed to end up in multiple dead ends and have to turn around.

What was worth it though was my haircut. I randomly found a hair stylist from Kent who was ex Toni and Guy now living on Utila with her Guatemalan husband who she met when she was backpacking in this part of the world. Like all good haircuts we had a yap about the weather, traveling etc as she cut away a sizeable chunk of what had become a serious lion's mane!
I have to say that life is a lot more comfortable now, especially for my neck.

Arancha took the opportunity of being on the island to reacquaint herself with actually being somebody by doing her first dive in years. Firstly she had to do a 'tune-up' to ensure that when she went back out into the open water she didn't f*ck up and drown but that all went well and the following day she was out before 7am and 18 metres under the ocean surface.
All in all it wasn't a great dive as the visibility was bad but the important thing is that she has got the taste for it again, so to ensure that I don't miss out in the future it looks as though I will be doing my PADI at some point.
Whilst AJ was fooling about in the sea I amused myself by jumping off the pier into the sea that was salty enough to allow me to lie back and float with my hands behind my head, hang out with the local hummingbird who would hover and perch within touching distance of me and do some much needed Spanish study.
Our back garden on Utila Island
Sunset over the bay

Another gorgeous sunset
Leaving the island was the start of pretty much a full 2.5 days of travel. We caught the 6:20am boat back to mainland and took a taxi to a bus station recommended by a local sharing our cab.
At the ticket booth we were horrified to learn that our 8 hour bus trip to the capital city would be $50 each so we decided to take a risk and make our way quickly over to the terminal of the company we used before - and this is where our Lonely Planet would've come in quite handy.
With no idea where we were we hailed a taxi and told him where we wanted to go. He was only too happy to nod his head and say that he understood before getting the bags loaded into the car.
I am not lying - he exited the bus terminal, turned left and drove for 10 metres, turned right into a driveway and drove 5 metres up it to drop us at the other terminal!!
Surely he could've just pointed it out for us?
Very much seeing the funny side of it we negotiated a half-price deal - about £1.50 and headed for the bus.

I can't tell you anything about the capital city of Honduras, Tegucigalpa because we literally got off the bus, took a taxi to a cheap and really good hotel that we found via someone's online blog before getting up the next day and taking another bus out over the border and to the capital city of Nicaragua.
All that we did see was a run down and dirty city and all that we experienced of its culture was a meal at a Chinese restaurant that served us so much food that we took away doggy bags and had breakfast and lunch from it the next day.

Crossing the border and getting in to Nicaragua was the easiest yet because the bus company we travelled with, Tica Bus takes care of it all for you. We handed them our passports and exit fees and apart from taking our bags through immigration (a barn) we did nothing else apart from stand about at the border eating bananas or sit back and watch the movies such as Life of Pi.

Hanging about at La Frontera (border)
Entering country number 7

Whereas we are unsure of our feelings about Honduras, yes it is a nice country but it is unwarrantedly expensive and its people are trying to hard to be American with their phoney accents, we immediately fell for Nicaragua.
Driving to the capital we passed by yet more volcanoes and now vast lakes and when we got off the bus in a dodgy part of the capital city, Managua, what we found (apart from the annoying touts, who did get us a decent room) was a little community of cheap sleeps, cheap eats and cheery people sitting out on the streets.
I think AJ has captured it perfectly when she says that Nicaragua is the country of the rocking chair - everyone just sits about rocking peacefully in the shade.

Once settled into the room and showered we went out for a bite to eat and found ourselves in an open kebab shop / restaurant run entirely by women who would sing and dance as they cooked whilst the matriarch (in obligatory rocking chair) personally tasted the food (she sent a lot back) and handled the money.
We sat back, enjoyed the entertainment, drank a beer and ate freshly barbequed beef, rice and plantain chips - what a nice way to be welcomed into country number 7.

Once again this would be a quick visit because we are now on a sort of timeframe - if we make it that is. There is a boat leaving from Panama City for Columbia on August 13th and we are planning to be on it, but as it leaves every 2 weeks this date could slip - let's see?

We had no desire to hang around the capital city so we caught a taxi over to local bus station and were on our way to the touristy lakeside city of Granada within 30 seconds of arriving, now that is efficiency (or good timing) and for the extortionate cost of 66p each.

Granada - what a lovely place! For once we had booked somewhere online prior to our arrival, primarily because it was advertised as 20p per night due to on-going construction over the summer. This deal that was too good to be true turned out to be just that but it didn't matter because we found ourselves in one of the most relaxing hostels I have ever stayed in with great staff, a good inclusive breakfast and an American owner who would do anything for you if you asked him to. It turned out that the 20p per room cost advertised online was down to his ex-business partner who after first robbing him of $35,000 then entered a campaign of hate and destruction that included hacking into his email to send his girlfriend crazy hate mail as well as booking random groups of backpackers into the hostel when it still wasn't ready and a building sight etc.
It also turned out that the Nicaraguan staff at the hostel were gearing up for the arrival of Adam Lambert the American Idol winner. They had no idea what he looked like or that he was gay but his concert schedule confirmed that he was free to visit and when we did arrive she phoned her boss to say that I could be him because I had long curly hair like a pop star and a very pretty girlfriend!! Obviously Arancha was well chuffed to hear this but AJ being here also confirmed to the boss (Greg) that he didn't have a 'star' and great marketing ploy for his new gaff in his midst.

As for Granada itself, though quite touristy, is a really lovely city set on the banks of Lake Nicaragua with long wide streets, leafy green squares and the standard brightly coloured churches.
Having taken a brief look around upon our arrival the clouds began to descend upon the town so we took affirmative action and took shelter in the local Irish Bar to eat Fish and Chips and get drunk on the local beer, priced at £1.30 per litre.


View of Apoyo Lagoon from Catarina
We spent 4 nights in Granada but didn't really do a lot with our time. On one day we did manage to catch the local bus up to Catarina, a local town famous for being situated on the rim of an dormant volcano crater that is now a lagoon and I have to say that the view out across the lagoon and down to Granada and the lake in the far distance was stunning. We also made an important acquisition in the city - basically I 'borrowed' a Central America Lonely Planet from a really expensive restaurant that we had eaten at. We had given one version to the universe to use as it so pleases so we were just taking this one to give it a life of its own and save it from its dusty shelf.

Next on the agenda was Isla de Ometepe, a real highlight for anybody that reads fantasy or adventure novels. Like the setting in an Arthur Conan Doyle book, Ometepe is a lush forested island formed of 2 volcanoes, one of which rises a mile straight up out of Lake Nicaragua in a perfect cone that is shrouded in mist and mystique.
The mystical Isla Ometepe
Dual volcanoes

Lake Nicaragua itself is impressive enough, being the largest lake in Central America and covering an area of 3,200 square miles.
Access to the island is via a 4 hour ferry ride and as we approached land and got our first real good view of the island I really expected to hear the roar of a T-Rex in the distance and see Pterodactyls circling around the peaks of the 2 volcanoes. It was all very Jurassic Park!

We visited the island for the sole purpose of summiting one of the 2 volcanoes and we decided that the highest peak of Concepcion would be the one for us. Unfortunately the weather was against us during our stay so we didn't get the chance to make a climb but that was ok, so instead we hired a couple of bicycles and explored part of the island.
We visited Agua de Ojo - volcanic thermal pools with supposed healing properties which were set amongst the monkey and exotic bird infested trees of the forest.
We also cycled down to one of the island's beaches for lunch and sat there watching the local wildlife (some introduced) that ranged from birds of prey, cows, dogs and 3 fawns following a lady as though she was their deer mother.
Our lunch was a right tasty dish of grilled beef and chicken but when one of the resident chickens came sniffing for food I was a little taken aback by the fact that it had some sort of disease and I could see right down to the bone on part of its rib cage - I really hope the chicken served for lunch was not from the same flock!!
The island was also home to literally thousands of butterflies and millions of greenfly, the latter of which we really enjoyed tasting during our ride home.

Deer on the lake beach
Agua de Ojo

With a real need for speed we decided that 2 nights on the island was enough and we got our arses over the our final Nicaraguan destination of San Juan Del Sur for a taste of relaxation; not that we really need it.
On the recommendation of fellow travelers that we met back on Tabacco Caye in Belize we had the taxi driver drop us a couple of kilometres outside of town at the bottom of a hill with a sign declaring that the road was private and there were armed men of the prowl.
Being a bloody hot and humid country we were sweating our proverbials off by the time we reached our intended destination but it was so very worth it. Casa De Olas has to be one of THE backpacker destinations, certainly in central America.
Australian owned and Australian and English inhabited this 'hostel' really is a piece of real estate quality. Set upon a hill overlooking the town of San Juan Del Sur which sits between 2 cliffs on a horseshoe shaped bay backpackers such as ourselves can sit and drink at the open plan bar or alternatively choose to take a dip and take in the surroundings via the infinity pool.
Every room opens up onto the pool and if that wasn't all good enough there is the resident pet spider monkey to cuddle up to, if you are a male. (She hates females and will pull their hair)

The sometimes unfriendly Buzz
Another aggressive female

There are only 3 negative comments I can make about this place:
  1. There are a few too many peacocks strutting about the place trying to pull the chicks, but I guess we have all been there
  2. Ralf Machio - the nickname given to a complete nobber we met at Spanish school in Xela randomly works here
  3. A young Aussie girl has been wearing revealing shorts with no underwear and sitting with her legs wide apart. This morning I got a full frontal and it wasn't pretty. A 23 year old girl should not have something in that state - it is hairy and looks like a dog has chewed on it! Given that we can hear the calls of the Howler Monkeys in the distance rolling over the hills to the hostel she is now called Growler Monkey.
These aren't really negatives and this place really is a top quality gaff.

Pool and sunset

So that's it, in just 17 days we have competed a further 2 countries but feel that we have seen enough to be able to judge them. Honduras is still developing but unfortunately is developing into an expensive destination for backpackers, whereas Nicaragua we really like, is backpacker friendly and we would love to return one day.

Onwards and downwards to Costa Rica and an ecological adventure. On the radar are nesting turtles, the elusive Mayan bird of paradise, the Quetzal, pumas, giant anteaters and sloths.   

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Peak to peak and the beauty in between

Well after 44 days in Guatemala which feels like it has been so much longer we have finally made it into Honduras with the promise of a return to the sun, sand and tropical islands.
Our final couple of weeks here were full of activity, mainly of a physical and sweaty variety; so here we go.

Before we got out of the classroom and back into the natural world we had to complete our last few days of Spanish school. As is always the way it was during these couple of days that I felt that I was making the most progress, which probably had an awful lot to do with the fact that we got out from behind the desk and took the lessons outdoors.
Applying the language to real life situations and activities was much more fruitful and I really enjoyed conversing with my teacher as we walked around the museums, churches, galleries and chewed the cud over 100% Guatemalan coffee in his favourite café.
Topics for conversation included drugs, religion, lady-boys and prostitution - see how far my language skills have come along!!!
I wouldn't say that we shared a tearful embrace come 1pm on Friday 21st June but he was grateful for the small gifts of organic coffee (the bag cost half of his daily wage) and some new whiteboard marker pens because I was sick of seeing him refilling his old ones with ink every other day (even though I got to sniff the pear-drop scented ink and get a little buzz).
Arancha went one better and bought her teacher some shoes that she had been saving up for and she did get a tearful embrace.
Jorge, my teacher, does have a close friend in London so one day I would like to think that we will be reunited for another chat, and maybe this time we can up it a notch and discuss sex slavery or paedophilia!

Our final school activity was to go out for a dinner on the Friday night but it was a low key affair as a few of us were down to participate in the full moon trek to Volcan Santa Maria the next evening.

With the trek in mind we did absolutely nothing on the Saturday except to eat and drink, and big up to our fellow housemates Kyle and Jenna who prepared us an energy producing home cooked dinner of bangers and mash before we headed out for the climb.

And so at the ridiculous time of 9:30pm we left the house and walked over to the trek company to complete registration and wait to begin our moonlight walk. I can't say that I was overly impressed to find that there would be over 30 of us participating but given that it is a once in a month opportunity it is not really surprising.
The plan was for us to set off at 10:30pm because the rough estimate was that it would take a ridiculous 4 - 6 hours of walking to reach the summit - always the case with a large group. Just as the lead guide announced that the weather was due to be perfect and we would be leaving shortly it began to rain heavily (of course it did) and for the next hour we were left in limbo as to whether the trek would be cancelled. In the end the rain abated and we were given a choice of whether we still wanted to go ahead or not, which 99% of the group did. To my surprise one guy from our school actually decided to quit before he even started, mainly due to the fact that he had come completely unprepared - seriously who comes to do an overnight trek to the top of a volcano in only shorts, t-shirt and trainers? Bloody English!

Like a group of Eastern European immigrants we all jumped into the back of a Luton van and with the back door still up we set off to the base of the volcano, stopping along the way to pick up our armed guard of 2 policeman - it can be a bit dangerous in these parts.
Getting ready to climb

Just over 1 hour and 45 minutes later than planned we finally got to begin our walk. Thankfully the rain had now stopped and would remain non-existent for the rest of our time on the trip but unfortunately there would be no full moon to guide us as the cloud was low and thick. It is shame because this full moon also happened to be the 'super moon'.
A mere hour into the ascent we stopped for a 30 minute break - no wonder it would take so long to summit and unbelievably another person decided that it was all a little too much for her. Surely when you decide to climb a volcano through the night you must realise it is not going to be that pleasant and if you are not fit enough you must know this in yourself before you begin?

Anyway, with the weak links gone it was time to begin the ascent proper and for the next 2.5 - 3 hours the group, although split into 3 parts, toiled and grappled with the steep, slippery and sometimes disappearing trail that was only always wide enough to be negotiated in single file.
Come 4:30am, after 4 hours of continuous climbing, the guide closely followed by a group of 7 which included myself and Arancha made it to the top.
I give Arancha a fisted salute over the heart because she was the second 'tourist' to summit and she had a chest infection. A great effort by my little mountaineer putting the others to shame.
Whoever said that it was not a race to the top is wrong - life is a competition and we are always competing against each other to win, it's fun!
However, the real heroes of the climb were the 2 dogs that apparently accompany every tour group to the top in hope of a free feed - they lightly trotted and happily made their way up waiting every now and then for us to catch up.

The first thing we did when we reached the top was to quickly get out of sweat soaked clothes and change into something warm and dry. It was freezing on the summit which topped out at just over 3,700 metres and the wind that whipped across the desolate peak cut right through us.
At 4:45am the light of the new day was beginning to creep up over the horizon so we had to make one of 2 choices:
1) Join the rest of group and watch the sunrise over the expanse of land that lay before us
2) Head away from sunrise and check out Volcan Santiguito - currently the most active volcano in Guatemala

I said that we had to choose one of two options but unbelievably some of the group chose a third option - climb into a sleeping bag to sleep missing everything that nature had on offer. Humans - some of them completely perplex me!

Witnessing an eruption
Having witnessed many sunrises with many more to come only myself and Arancha ventured over to a lower part of the peak to take a look at Santiguito and hopefully catch a piece of the action. With dawn approaching in full force we sat mesmerised as streams of smoke gently rose from an actual active volcano. From the peak we had 360 degree views out across the country and whilst checking out one magnificent vista after another we suddenly heard a loud rumbling and 'boom' and quickly turned back to Santiguito to witness a real eruption. The only way I can describe our reaction was like to kids at Christmas as we stood transfixed listening to the boom and watching a huge mushroom cloud of volcanic ash and cloud spew up into the air.

We were on the peak for 3 hours and only once did that happen - how lucky were we? Everybody else was watching the sunrise or sleeping.

Xela from the top of Santa Maria
So what about the rest of the view? Well our 360 degree view was as follows:
Looking out over and past the smoking Volcan Santiguito you could see the Guatemalan Pacific coastline, also as the sun rose behind us it cast a perfect pyramid shaped shadow of Volcan Santa Maria (where we were stood) that didn't look real as it stretched out over the land below. Turning to the right we looked out over 2 other volcanos, one being Tajulmulco - the highest point in Central America, continuing around we looked down upon our home city of Xela stretching out to meet the base of the hills that formed the basin that the city sits within, before finally completing our circle with the most impressive view of all - the volcanic range starting with Volcan San Pedro that sits on the shores of Lago Atitlan and finished 6 volcanos later with Volcan Fuego close to the city of Antigua.
Chuck in a few dramatic clouds hovering between the peaks and the approaching sun into the mix and what you have is a view that will be one of the memories that I will take with me - for me it was that good.

The view over to Lake Atitlan
The highest point in Central America

After a measly breakfast, a cup of coffee and quite a few moans about how cold and tired people were (admittedly it was chilly) we finally began our ascent at 8am and by 10:30am we were all at the base lounging in the warm sun keen to get back home for a shower, some food and a kip.
That day we finally made it to bed at 3pm and by that point having completed the 1,500 metre climb up and subsequent 1,500 metre descent we had been awake for over 30 hours.

Surprisingly we were sprightly and as keen as beans the following day - our last day after a month in Xela; as we moved out of our homestay and into a hostel for the night. We completed what little bits we had tie up and this included buying small gifts for Leslie and Luis who had treated us so well and also taking them out for a thank you meal along with Jenna and Kyle.
One other final task was to show Arancha around the Xela museum which apart from being located in an old prison, having a really impressive of locally found Mayan artefacts had a 'freak' section. There was a 4 month human foetus, which seeing how developed it was makes the limit of 12 weeks for an abortion seem a bit dodgy, plus there were various Siamese animals such as a 2 headed calf and 2 bodies deer - brilliant.

Finally it was time to leave this city and once again we made our way back to the same trek company to partake in a 2.5 day, 45 kilometre trek from Xela to the shores of Lago Atitlan, renowned as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
Fortunately the group for this trek was much smaller and consisted of only 7 travelers and 2 guides.
With ourselves, Jenna and Kyle was Yan from Hong Kong and 2 Israeli girls.
We departed early doors catching an 8am bus out of Xela to a nearby village that housed the start of the trek path.
It was a bright sunny day and all was well in the world. The opening part of the trek was a 1,000 metre walk straight up a rocky track to get the heart pumping but with the promise of this being the hardest part climb in the 2.5 days and also the highest point we would get to you would think that everybody would just suck it up and deal with it.
Not so! One of the Israeli's (now known as Isfail - I acknowledge you Kyle for this) decided a mere 30 minutes into the trek that she couldn't go on. Are you f*cking serious? How can you quit after only 30 minutes and then once you have met up with us later after being driven to the end point claim that smoking had nothing to do with it?
As Isfail was being evacuated back to Xela we had to sit around killing time and it was during this time that we all had to redistribute the communal food between us because the other chunky Israeli couldn't carry the weight of her bag! Carrying extra communal food is fine by me but most of us drew the line at helping her with her own gear. Yan being a gentleman helped her out as did one of the guides with her water and sleeping bag.
22 year olds should not be that unfit!

Taking a rest
A friendly local?

The remainder of that day saw us walk up mountains, amongst the multiple corn fields that litter the countryside, through little villages with their inquisitive inhabitants and lunch resting on our bags overlooking a cloud forest and its dense jungle vegetation before descending down the other side of the mountain over loose scree and slippery paths where we all danced around as though we were on ice.
7 hours later we wearily exited the countryside and joined a very hard and rough dirt road that wound around the valley and took us up to what very literally would be our humble abode for the night.

How to explain the village that we found ourselves in for the night? Apocalyptic would go some way to capturing its appearance. Set amongst a beautiful mountain backdrop it was the sort of place where everything would disappear within seconds as the cloud descended and all you were left with was a view of the clapped our central square (which the village was built around) as we sat around waiting for the zombies to stagger out of the mist to rip out our intestines and feast upon our entrails.
Our accommodation was the Municipal Hall set on the east side of this square and it was as basic as can be. The lead guide opened up the iron door and creaking filled the ample hall that would be our communal bedroom for the night. We had free choice as to where we wanted to sleep but every spot had one thing in common - it was hard tiled floor which on threadbare sleeping mats would leave us all with bruised hips and backs.
The treat to help us recover from a hard days trekking and to assist with the uncomfortable night to come was to visit the local sweat lodges.
Essentially these hot boxes were homebuilt saunas / steam rooms super heated by pouring water over volcanic rocks which would then spew out hissing steam.
Being small units that resembled WWII bomb shelters the only way to enter was on hands and knees before crouching and trying to clean yourself.
As we visited in couples I stripped off to my birthday suit and proceeded to wash myself as best I could whilst ingesting copious amounts of volcanic steam which left everybody who visited coughing like they had just smoked a pack of 20.
Of course it was an enjoyable experience, how can getting clean in such a way in someone's back garden in the middle of nowhere not be, but I wasn't overly keen on trying to stand to wash my bits and hearing my back sizzle on the hot tin roof.
The 'hot box'
Ooh, a comfy night ahead
That night we ate an ample dinner of pasta and vegetables and settled down to sleep by 8pm as we watched the odd rat run from one end of the hall to the other.

Living the culinary dream
After an energy packed egg and rice breakfast prepared and eaten in a local villager's kitchen we were back on the trek and headed for the promise of a good dinner and comfortable night at the house of Don Pedro.
This day's trek was hard and but also really enjoyable and we tackled some really challenging uphill climbs before being rewarded for such endeavours with great views and more importantly, ice cream purchased from the village tienda (corner shop).
The first climb of the day was to take on the challenge of 'Record Hill', a seriously steep uphill climb that left your calves feeling like they were going to explode.
The hill is called 'Record Hill' because one of the local guides once smashed the walk up and completed the ascent in 9 mins and 5 secs.
Each trekkers mission, if they chose to accept it was to try and beat this time - frankly an impossible task.
Only 4 of the group decided to give it a go and being the keenest / stupidest, I set off first. 12 mins 51 secs later I made it to the top and even if I got back to peak fitness there is no way that I would be able to get anywhere close to 9 mins. Given that I beat the time of our own guide shows how insanely fast that time is.
AJ was the only girl to give it a go and she came in at 18 mins and 30 secs - coughing and spluttering with the continuing chest infection.
Standard walking time was 25 minutes, so we bitched it up.

The afternoon part of the trek mixed the walk up a little as we traversed a total of 9 creeks / brooks. Everyone keenly stood and watched the rest cross with eagle eyes secretly hoping that someone would trip and get a soaking. Unfortunately everybody made it across but if that meant that we ourselves were dry then I guess you have to just accept it.
By mid afternoon we made it to our second stop over, the house of Don Pedro, who was somewhat the main man in the community that we found ourselves in. Don's gaff was large enough to house the 9 of us plus his own family which consisted of his grown up kids and their own children.
Don and his family were also building the new church for the community and were busy shifting sand and gravel in huge quantities whilst Mrs Don got her cook on.
Dinner prepared by Don's wife contained some of the best chicken that I have ever eaten and the marshmallows cooked over the open fire in the covered yard were a much welcome addition to my hungry stomach.
The dining room also doubled as our bedroom for the night and the stench emanating from one of the guides unwashed feet soon caused some upset within the camp. I really liked the guide (an Aussie) and he has lived a life that anybody who enjoys the great outdoors would want; such as working for 12 months as a guide in Australia's red centre, driving around Australia twice and picking up odd jobs here and there, as well as working as a coffee salesman in New Zealand that left him with 4 days a week to explore the rugged South Island.
However, his feet were putrid and there is no defence for a smell like that.
The night was finished off with a little song and dance courtesy of the Don and 3 of the grandkids which was a thoroughly enjoyable affair whilst the young twins ran amuck through the house.
Don Pedro and the gang

Whether the floor was comfy or not, or whether Dan the Guide's feet were still giving off a serious pong was irrelevant because we were up, out and back on the road at 3:45am in order to finish off the trek in absolute style.
By 4:30am we had settled down on our sleeping mats with our backs against our bags on a lawn high above Lago Atitlan and there we sat for 2 hours watching the sun rise from behind the mountains to the east to illuminate the lake and the volcanic range we had seen a few days earlier from the peak of Santa Maria; which now sat right in front of us. Even better, one of Guatemala's other active volcanos Volcan Fuego decided to get a little excited and spout out a stream of black smoke that appeared even darker against the pinks, oranges and yellows of the morning sky.
As mentioned before Lake Atitlan is thought of as one of the most in the world and it was actually created through the volcanic activity of the 3 volcanos that sit along its southern shoreline. Over 1.8 million years ago the lava spewing out of these 3 created a basin of lava rock that created a completely watertight base that continually rises and falls during the changing of the seasons (average depth of 350 metres) - something that the westerners who built their beautiful houses along the shore didn't take into account and is the reason why they now sit under water!!
We sat at the northern end of this lake that covers a total of 130 square kilometres and ate breakfast overlooking this beauty and the numerous villages and fields that litter the landscape producing crops, most notably corn and coffee. How could anyone possibly have cause to complain???

Lake Atitlan

The last task left to us (after each and every one of us went for a poo in the woods) was to descend amongst the spectacular views down to the seemingly woman only village of San Juan to wait for our bags to arrive and to eat lunch served up by the Mayan Women's Collective.

Along with Kyle and Jenna we decided that it would be best to base ourselves in the lively town of San Pedro and so via tuk tuk we got ourselves over to the town and within 20 minutes had secured neighbourly rooms in a good part of town with a hammock and lake views. Sweet as!
Our timing couldn't have been much better as it was fiesta time and we spent our 4 days here during the annual birthday celebrations of the town. The celebrations consisted of hourly fireworks, streets lined with delicious food stalls, fair rides and best of all marquees containing loads of original arcade games such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.

San Pedro also had it touristy area and there were no complaints as we strolled around the laneways enjoying big juicy burgers and chocolate brownies because we had obviously earned the right to from our tough 2.5 days walk.

For me there was also the bonus of another volcano climb. The town sits at the base of its namesake volcano, Volcan San Pedro and at 5am on the morning following our arrival I found myself saying goodbye to Arancha who was sleeping soundly and I set off to make my second volcano summit within 5 days, because I was unable to rest until I had achieved my objective.
The guide book and the various agencies around town insisted that for security reasons you should only climb the volcano with a guide but because I am hard and wicked I did it on my own.
I actually did heed the warnings so only took a small amount money with me which turned out to be a bit of an issue because I didn't realise that I needed to pay a permit to be within the ecological park.
About 1 hour into my solo climb I came across a friendly guide who asked if he could see my permit slip which was how I discovered that I actually needed one. Due to safety precautions I only had 45 Quetzales of the required 100 Q on me but with a little broken Spanish, especially using 'Lo Siento' (Sorry) he let me off and wrote me a little homemade receipt that I would be able to present to the office once I returned to base.
As for the actual climb, it was tough and not exactly worth it because the peak was surrounded in thick cloud but once I descended back down to the clear skies at 2,500 metres I was rewarded with fantastic views out across the lake and the town of San Pedro.

Volcan San Pedro

Climbing Volcan San Pedro

Knowing that I hadn't fully paid for the permit and only had a crappy handwritten receipt for my 45% payment I tried to avoid the payment office completely upon my return to base and took a short cut to main road through the hedges - only to come face to face with the 'permit master'.
Oddly enough he didn't actually ask me why I had just emerged through a bush and was very kind and understanding about the half payment of the permit, nice enough that I felt like a complete tool for dragging myself through a bush to avoid contact with him.

With the volcano completed I could relax and enjoy my time along the banks of the lake and for 3 days we ate, took a boat across the lake to the hippy filled streets of San Marcos, a centre for holistic healing and yoga and also caught up with a mate from Spanish school.

On the Saturday we thought it would be wise to down a few beers so myself and Arancha got a little tipsy and ventured out to the centre of town to enjoy the fiesta festivities. Come 11:30pm I still wanted to take in what San Pedro had to offer so after walking AJ home I returned to the basketball court in the middle of town to join the hundreds of other residents to watch and dance to the local Guatemalan and guest South American bands that had come to play until the early hours of the morning.
Whilst standing off to the side a little Guatemalan guy came to keep me company and for the next couple of hours we were inseparable (because I was buying him beer) as we traded Spanish small talk and took it all in.

After 4 days around the lake it was time to leave which also meant that apart from a lay over in the already visited Antigua it was time to wave goodbye to Guatemala.
Once again I departed yet another country having fallen for its charms, people and natural wonders - how the hell I am supposed to settle in just one place in the future?